Back to Basics Tip – Benchmark It

This post is dedicated to the beginners out there, whether you’ve just signed up for your first triathlon, you’re trying a longer distance for the first time, or maybe (even more importantly) if you’re a seasoned athlete that’s just getting back in the saddle after an injury or sabbatical. This is the first in what will become a weekly Back to Basics Tip series that we’ll run regularly to make sure that no one misses a chance at the finish line.

First, a word about starting something new, or getting back into the swing:  it can be hard. It can be uncomfortable, awkward, and frustrating. And it’s very easy to get into the downward shame spiral of thinking of how good we were before that injury, or how fit we were 10 years ago, or how every other athlete in this race looks so fit and fast and strong. Endurance sports are not for the faint of heart, but most athletes have at least one moment of self-doubt once in awhile – and that’s the point. There isn’t one racer out there who hasn’t fought at least one battle to get to that place. So the battle, the uncomfortable, frustrating, and awkward part, is also the fun part. Or, rather, it will become the fun part, if you let yourself get there. So, on to the battle…

Our Back to Basics Tip of the week is: Benchmark It. New athletes, seasoned athletes, recently rehabbed athletes all could use a log of their current baseline fitness test, depending on the goal. If this is your first tri ever, test each event individually, as soon as possible, to gauge your current fitness level. Once you’ve done a trial run of each distance, hopefully similar in terrain to which you’ll be competing on, write down your times. If you think you can or want to improve on any of them, set yourself a goal – don’t you love those? – and keep training. Then see where you land in a month or six weeks time with another trial run of the same distance, on the same course. The beauty of the multisport event is that you have moments to shine, and moments to challenge yourself. If you’re a killer runner but almost drown on the swim, then you know where you can lean on your strengths and where you can work on your weaknesses.

For the recently-rehabbed athletes, the same goes for you: find that benchmark and start working from there. Maybe the goal is running, biking, or swimming without pain, which alone is an incredible achievement after an injury. The benchmark is the baseline from which to measure and celebrate your improvements, not the standard to which you think you “should” be better. When you’re starting out, you’ve got to start somewhere.

What’s your reason for getting out there?

Sporting fever is in the air. It’s the time when there are great stories to read every morning about athletes your know and, sometimes even better, athletes you’ve never heard of. The Olympics in Sochi are not the only carrier of that virus; another event has Trimax’s temperature all hot as well: a really great bike race, Italy’s Tirreno-Adriatico. What has always caught my attention, even more than the wins and losses and medals and bouquets, have been the athletes’ stories behind the competition. There is magic in those stories. It’s like hearing an actor’s acceptance speech after winning an Oscar – you get to meet the human behind the character that you’ve watched onscreen.

This year is no different, but there’s one story that’s become more of a saga: Taylor Phinney, a young American cyclist and legacy of his cycling-legend parents, Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter, competed in Tirreno-Adriatico’s stage race last year and came in dead last. Jason Gay at the WSJ wrote a great piece about it, which I am referencing in this tale of athlete-adoration (athloration?) and inspiration. He wrote about Phinney’s endurance, physically, mentally, and spiritually speaking, that got him to finish the stage when lots of other riders dropped off with 80 miles and lots of rain and hills to go. Phinney’s reason for staying the course was his father, Davis, who has suffered from Parkinson’s disease for more than a decade and can’t ride the way he used to. Taylor just kept thinking about Dad, and how he’d probably take Taylor’s place on the bike in a heartbeat if he still could. That is what kept Taylor Phinney going that day, and today this story resurfaces because this year, Taylor Phinney won that race.

A few hundred miles north of Italy, in Norway, Olympians-in-training abound in the small region of Trøndelag. Another great article from the Wall Street Journal describes the extraordinary amount of Olympic Gold Medals that this region brings home relative to the rest of the country, and how their lifestyle and culture is a good indication of how that happens. In particular, the article mentions the Norwegian concept of friluftsliv, which refers to “enjoying the outdoor life” and is widely studied in books and universities. How cool is that – they have a whole WORD for what most of us only experience, often on long runs or rides or open water swims? It’s what many think inspires the Norwegians’ great athleticism, and what continues to bring home Olympic Gold. If you don’t enjoy being out there, chances are you won’t have anything to carry you through the slog and the mud and the pain. And, unfortunately, that means nothing to get you to the joy and exhilaration of the finish line, whatever that line means for you.

What’s your reason for getting out there? Are you like Taylor Phinney, with a loved one in your life that wishes they could be on the course, but can’t, so you race for them? Like me, with a health challenge that is greatly alleviated by daily intensive exercise? Or like the Norwegians, with a great, inherent love for the outdoor life that just keeps you coming back, whenever you can? Whatever your reason, the finish line is waiting.

More on high fat-low carb eating

How many avocados can I eat in a day?  How much red meat?  How many uses for coconut oil do I have in my kitchen (and do I get bonus points for putting it in my coffee?)? These are all questions from the mind of a Paleo eater. I say “eater” and not “dieter”, because we all hate the word “diet” by now as well as everything it implies: restriction…perfection…control. And I use the word “Paleo” because it has become the mainstream label for the high fat, low carbohydrate way of eating that has taken hold in many corners of the world, not least of which is the endurance sport world/Tim Noakes fan club (see yesterday’s post about Prof. Noakes and his discoveries.)

The question at the very core of every athlete’s search for the right way to eat is: what will make me perform at the top of my ability, and feel good doing it? I heard today on a favorite podcast of ours,, an interview with trainer Debbie Potts that when she used to compete in triathlons following a carbo-load session, she would often vomit off the side of her bike and think to herself, well, I guess I just didn’t need those calories. Honestly, not such a misguided thought, especially while competing in such a mentally and physically taxing sport. But upon further thought, a body in motion should not have to vomit out unneeded fuel to stay in motion. So – and this is for those of us who are finding out one way or another that carbohydrates are not tolerated well or perhaps aren’t the best fuel source for endurance exercise – maybe the answer is FAT. It’s called Metabolic Efficiency and it refers to improving your body’s ability to use fat as fuel. Yes, it is possible, and it might even be the most optimal way for your body to operate under stress (i.e. exercise). And once that warm, satisfied feeling of self-discovery has washed over your body, you might feel another question arise: …so where do I get all the FAT?

But pasta is just so easy! And bagels!! And cookies!!! Does this mean I need to grill a burger every time I want a snack? And only ever have Slim Jim’s to take with me in my bag/purse/car? Well, only if you want to.  One of the exciting things about high fat-low carb eating is the change in hunger signals. Fat and protein increase satiety, to begin with. Second, the blood sugar swings. Let’s avoid those at all costs. So, eating this high fat diet might actually change your relationship with food – ever wake up in the middle of the night, during a high volume training season, famished and sleepily in need of a bowl of breakfast cereal? Our bodies have a lot more fat stored on them than carbohydrates (specifically 80,000 of fat to 1,500 of carbs, give or take), so you’re hard-working, calorie-torching body will be able to make it through the night without running out of fuel to keep your organs working while you sleep. If you shift your macronutrient load from carbohydrates to fats,  you’d do well to note how often your body gets hungry, the intensity of that hunger, and the timing.

A sample Trimax meal plan (an alternative to the Ironman eating plan, which – no offense to the great Ironman – seemed a little grain heavy at breakfast):

Breakfast: 3 eggs with sliced 1/2 avocado (in a rush? Hardboiled eggs and any portable veggies: carrot sticks, grape tomatoes, 1/2 cucumber)

Snack: Celery with almond butter (don’t go too crazy with the nut butters – keep it to 2 tbsp)

Lunch: Green salad with tons of veggies and seeds (sunflower! hemp! pumpkin!), plus protein of choice (i.e. grilled chicken, turkey, salmon, hardboiled eggs, etc)

Snack: Handful (or two) of berries

Dinner: Grass-fed beef or bison with steamed kale and mashed cauliflower (use coconut oil or grass-fed butter in your faux-tatoes!)

Food for…trial and error

A few of us here on Trimax staff are certified nutrition coaches and/or certified health coaches, which means that we are authorities on the matter of trying every diet and reading every book and doing every form of exercise known to human kind and coming to the foregone conclusion that it’s all left up to a very personal journey of trial and error. Nutrition is the singular science in which two opposing theories can be proven and both still be right.  Frustrating, isn’t it? Thus, trial and error is almost mandatory, if not at least a handy tool in everyone’s quest to figure what to eat to look and feel their best, and furthermore, what to eat to perform their best.

One major, and majorly public, trial and error that we’ve recently seen came courtesy of the sensei of ultra running himself, Professor Tim Noakes. His Lore of Running, which is now in its 4th edition published in 2002, is a bible to many endurance athletes and casual runners alike. And as of very recently, Tim has instructed everyone who owns a copy to find the chapter on nutrition and RIP IT OUT! Have you ever heard such a thing? We admire and applaud Noakes for outing the archaic advice of carbo-loading to fuel endurance activities that is heavily advised in his book and was omnipresent in the world of endurance sports at the time. If you – literally – wrote the book (nay, the bible!) on carbo-loading, then it takes one steely nerve to say that, after 30 years, it was indeed bad advice. Good thing this is Tim Noakes, and not someone who hasn’t done their research.

Now many of you out there (and many of us in here) have definitely enjoyed a carbo-load or two in the past, and maybe for many of you it works like the Dickens and you haven’t the slightest reason to change it. As it turns out, Noakes had his health to wake him up to his need for a change – he was diagnosed with prediabetes, which indicates insulin resistance and, more pressingly, carbohydrate intolerance. I myself have type 1 diabetes and am no stranger to the low carb diet, but the question has always been: can I train hard without the carbs? Will meat and vegetables fuel my workouts and recovery? We’ll get to that tomorrow, but in the meantime – go find your copy of Lore of Running  and start ripping!

Are you running or racing today?

Hi endurance athletes,

We’ve been reading “Run Gently Out There: Trials, trails, and tribulations of running ultramarathons” over here at the Trimax office, a book by seasoned endurance athlete and vivd essayist John Morelock. It’s been a great read; Morelock is a charming and inspiring writer, and his essays on one of our favorite hobbies are at once honest and eloquent, humorous and intimate. But this is not (really) a book review. This is our own essay about one of our own favorite topics that Morelock brings up in his book: are you racing or running today?
His comparative analysis between Runners and Racers starts with, “Runners: stop to look at the trees as they pass by,” and “Racers: ricochet off trees as they zoom across the landscape.” Sound familiar? “Runners: take naps in tents at aid stations,” and “Racers: take naps as they wait at the finish line.” Our favorite: Runners: watch flowers opening in the morning sun,” and “Racers: pass through the pre-dawn darkness.” And one that rings especially true: “Runners: are relieved to hear someone approaching from behind,” and “Racers: feel the pressure of someone approaching from behind.”
What drives you when you’re out there on the road or trail or water? Is it a competitiveness with yourself, or with the racers around you? Or is it just the pleasure of being outside, moving your body, enjoying the community of the other runners and racers? There is no right answer, of course, but maybe it’s a question to pose to oneself at every starting line, whether anyone is timing or not: am I running or racing today?